University-trained journalists have the concept of unbiased reporting baked into their training from day one. Don’t just cover an issue; cover it from both sides and give your readers the whole story™. It’s a lofty goal, and on an individual level, you’ll find plenty of hard-working journalists doing the best work they can, ethically, to write balanced news stories.
The problem is that bias is innate, and that the result of attempting to write without bias is an extended exercise in not rocking the boat. The neutral voice’s job is, at least in part, to hold the status quo as sacrosanct.
News writing can be tricky, since the reporter is not allowed to include his or herself in the story. This is problematic because the reporter is the person formulating the questions. By removing this aspect of reporting—making it seem as if questions are never asked—the style of writing makes it seem as if, without effort, information has sprung into existence. This is never true.
Take CNN’s latest coverage of the Navy’s newest warship breaking down because of mechanical trouble (with apologies to Mr. Cohen, as I’m sure he didn’t want to be anyone’s whipping boy today). The questions that the article answers show us a clear bias; the reporter gives us the cost of the warship—an astronomical and inexcusable sum—and little else, and in doing so, lets us draw our own conclusions. Let’s give the question being answered a physical form, so that it’s not a ghost floating between the lines of the article. Ask the question yourself, out loud. It’ll feel good. How much did this piece of shit cost us?
Starting to see the bias? The reporter arrived at that question—which is a perfectly reasonable question—by having a desire to know the cost of the ship. The baked in perspective is that of the taxpayer–it’s a fair perspective in a void. But the desire to know the cost of the ship comes from an assumption that it probably wasn’t worth the money. And if it doesn’t come from that assumption, the reporter wasn’t allowed—by design of news writing style—to say otherwise. The status quo is God in this article, and it’s worshipers are people who know nothing about the workings of warships, the U.S. Navy, and the military’s budget. For such a brief article, imagine all of the questions that have gone unanswered—questions that didn’t form precisely because biases prevented it. (In fact, it looks as if this particular article is merely regurgitating Navy Times’ reporting for the sake of adding new content quickly, which in itself betrays an untrustworthy bias toward generating clicks for ad partners. Certainly, summarizing a Navy Times article with no additional information is not contributing meaningfully to the knowledge bank of society.)
Keeping the target audience in mind, here are some questions the article doesn’t even try to answer:
How often do military ships, especially new ones, break down? Is the cost of repairing the ship going to be exorbitant, or will it be a relatively simple matter that staff at a dry dock can handle within a few days? Is the error likely to re-occur? What was the ship’s mission when it broke down? Is that mission important? Is that mission delayed? Canceled all-together?
Try as this story might to be a simple presentation of fact, it has made itself into a very tiny attack on the perception of skill of the U.S. Navy. Money was the forefront question, so everyone who reads that and who isn’t in the deeper know will click their tongues about wasteful spending and move on—because everyone knows that our military institution wastes tons of money. That’s common knowledge—the status quo—and when journalists report from that perspective, they do very few favors to anyone.
If the reporter had been allowed to frame his questions honestly in the standard writing style, he might have seen the bias creeping in and, rather than attempt to eliminate it–an impossibility–sought to counter-balance it with questions that probe at the value of the inexcusably expensive warship rather than produce an article that stews absent-mindedly in the assumption that, because the ship broke down, it’s worth a great deal less than the cost of its creation. For all we know, though, that ship’s value or lack of it is represented in ways that aren’t trackable in a monetary ledger. In any case, it’s a fair bet that the whole story™ is not that a ship broke down and cost us a bunch of money.